The economy is twice as wealthy and productive than it was in 1980 however, despite three decades of economic growth, middle-class incomes have risen only slightly. This is a consequence of thirty-five years of free-market evangelism that has convinced middle-class voters, who despite being on the short-end of the economic stick, to support policies that favor corporations and Wall Street. Labor unions have been the countervailing power to corporate abuses for decades. Union contracts were templates for entire industries. They raised living standards for millions of Americans and were at the forefront of wages, pensions, healthcare, education, civil rights, housing and a host of other social causes important to the entire community. Their efforts had a profound impact on the middleclass, even to those who did not belong to a union themselves. Today however, Americans are drowning in debt; job security and workplace protections are a thing of the past. Traditional pensions have almost completely disappeared, replaced by chronically underfunded 401(k) plans in which workers bear all the risk of the stock market. This is the predictable result of trickle-down economics. A strategy designed to redistribute the nation’s wealth from the bottom up. By eliminating their primary opposition, the corporatocracy and Wall Street sought to dismantle labor unions and sow the seeds of discontent among wage earners. The consequence is the average after-tax income of the one-percent has increased from $337,000 in 1980 to $1.2 million today. This is an increase of almost 260% in 35 years. Compared to average middle class incomes, which increased only about 15% during the same time frame.
However, none of this happened by chance. Too many middleclass voters simply sat idly by and abdicated their responsibility; hiding behind the alibi “I’m just not into politics.” Corporations and the financial industry seized this opportunity to get what they wanted; public policies focused almost exclusively on the demands of business and finance. Based on the empty promises of shared economic growth and jobs they sold an intellectually lazy electorate on multi-trillion-dollar corporate tax breaks, financial deregulations and corporate welfare subsidies. A slight-of-hand that turned the economy into a playground for corporations, the oligarchs and wall street gamblers. Therefore, if you’re “just not into politics” remember your employer, your financial institution and your insurance company are and every day they use their political power to keep your wages low, eliminate your protections and deny you coverage. Maybe it’s time you get into politics.
Clearly, this essay exposes a rotund elephant in our living room. I believe that the all-in transition from a client-based to investor-based economy (circa 1970-80) was the starting point for where we now find ourselves. CEO’s who received outrageous compensation packages for improving stock values over employee satisfaction or worse, over product quality and user satisfaction, are one of the most visible winners of this dramatic change. Venture capitalists, and hedge fund operators, banks, and other money manipulators have also cashed in on the feeding frenzy. One has to ask just how much skin did any of these CEOs have in the game? Certainly not as much as the individuals who started their companies many years ago.
Changing political realities in Washington; changes in campaign financing, (corporations are people too) and a myriad of technological and other distractions have also contributed to the destruction of New Deal policies and visions. The question is will it take another 40 – 50 years to readjust? What should/could our consumer democracy look like? How do we revive civil discourse and motivation to develop the commitment for change and how do we break out of the “political silos” we presently find ourselves in? How bad does it have to get before the vast numbers of citizens who have largely been left out of this historic income spike decide not to play the game as expected?
You’re comment raises thought provoking and relevant questions to the fundamental social and economic issues of short-term thinking that continues to impact our policies. I think the answer remains with the people. The corporations, the oligarchs and the wall street gamblers fear nothing, except the collective vote-which is exactly why the ruling class has destroyed organized labor. It is also why they continue to relentlessly pollute our political discourse with wedge issues like religion, race and guns. When compared to Europe the government fears it’s people. In America, the people fear their government. I think we are beginning to see the start of a new civil discourse. As in the New Deal and the Great Society before, bold progressive changes come on the heels of great upheaval. In large part because the ruling class will never freely give up their power-it has to be wrestled back from them. At which point, will come a short window that will usher in a new progressive era lasting only a few years. However, none of this comes without a price and once the middle-class who supports Trump and the Republican congress finally realizes they’ve been duped, the game changes.